Cher Monsieur ou Madame:
Canada is a longstanding bilingual country, attempting to balance the competing interests of both our British and French settlers. The Official Languages Act, 1969 recognizes both French and English as Canada’s official languages.1 Through the powers of this Act, Canadians across the country are guaranteed various rights. Some notable powers include: the right to receive federal services provided in the official language of one’s choice, and all acts of Parliament must be available and published in both languages.2 The requirement to receive federal legislation in either language is logical considering both languages are equal. Naturally, it may surprise you to discover that the fifteen versions of the British North America Act, 1867 (BNA Act) have no official French version.3
It is understandable that no official French version of the BNA Act is available for the years prior the enactment of The Official Languages Act. Before the Official Languages Act was passed there was no legislative requirement to provide federal documents in both languages. British Parliament, whose only official language is English, passed the BNA Act. At the time of Confederation, the strong British presence and their government control over the document is likely the reason English was the only official language the document passed in. Even in 1867 however, French translations of the document were available. A French newspaper Le Canadien printed a translated version of the BNA Act Bill on March 6, 1867.4 As far back as Confederation, French translations have been available, albeit unofficially.
Here at the Dominion, we can understand the BNA Act having only an English version before the Official Languages Act passed. What we have difficulty understanding is that three versions of the BNA Act (1974, 1975 and 1975 (No. 2)) were passed after French was recognized as an official language; and all fail to have an official French version.5 The logical reason for this failure is that the Constitution was still under Imperial control this time (check out our previous post about patriation), and therefore not technically a Parliamentary document. When the Canadian government finally patriated the BNA Act, renaming it the Constitution Act, 1982, an official French version of this document became available.6
Section 55 of the Constitution Act, 1982 presented the Minister of Justice with the power to translate previously enacted constitutional documents into French.7 Using this power, the French Constitutional Drafting Committee prepared a draft translating all of the BNA Acts into French.8 Even with the Committee presenting a drafted translations, the Canadian government never officially enacted the French versions.9 Thus, at the Dominion we must wonder are French and English truly equal in this country.
Your Humble and Obedient Servants,
1 Official Languages Act, RSC 1985, c 31, (4th Supp).
2 Ibid at ss 6 & 22.
3 See Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, reprinted in RSC 1985, Appendix II, No 5.
4 Hugo Choquette, “Translating the Constitution Act, 1867: A Critique” (2011) 36:2 Queen’s LJ 503 at 516.
5 Constitution Act, 1867, supra note 3.
6 Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11.
7 Ibid at s 55.
 Canada, French Constitutional Drafting Committee, Final Report of the French Constitutional Drafting Committee responsible for providing the Minister of Justice of Canada with a draft official French version of certain constitution enactments, (Ottawa: Department of Justice, 2015), online <www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/constitution/lawreg-loireg/index.html>.